Feast or famine seems to be the message being sent by Wal-Mart to Howard countians.
Not only is the nation's most successful retailer continuing its fight over land on which it wants to build in Howard, it is also eyeing property just over the county line on U.S. 40 in Catonsville. The two locations are six miles apart.
More than likely this is a case of the aggressive discounter from Arkansas hedging its bet by creating two options in general proximity to one another. That's simple, good business sense.
If, on the other hand, Wal-Mart, by pondering a Catonsville site with uncharacteristic candor, is attempting to frighten Howard officials into striking a deal so it can locate where it wants in the county, that probably won't work.
A Wal-Mart in Catonsville may be just the compromise with which county officials can live. Shoppers would benefit from the nearby store, but smaller county merchants mighn't feel in such direct competition with the retail behemoth. Still, a Wal-Mart just over Howard's border has a downside for the county, too. The county would lose out on millions in tax revenues. Also, other types of county merchants wouldn't benefit from the visibility and consumer traffic a Wal-Mart can bring.
Those are powerful considerations that the county cannot ignore. So far, however, officials have taken the proper course. They turned down Wal-Mart's proposal to build on a tract that, although adjacent to commercially laden Route 40, sits near an unusual intersection. A store there would almost certainly create traffic nightmares. Better that the matter be decided by the state Court of Special Appeals, where Wal-Mart has taken its case.
One way to look at the Wal-Mart mania is that Howard County will not be a significant loser no matter what happens. Clearly, the county, with the Baltimore area's largest disposable incomes, has become an attractive place for discount retailers. A BJ's Wholesale Club is to open next month in Columbia. And another developer is attempting to lure a warehouse-style operation to his Route 29 property, about a mile from where Wal-Mart wants to build.
Unless the distinction between Wal-Mart and other discount stores amounts to a chasm, Howard County stands to get its fair share of such retailers, and then some.